The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

People’s Army: An Idea Whose Time Has Past?

Some say that the concept of a “People’s Army” that is large, represents the responsibility of citizens doing their duty in service to the nation, but is relatively untrained, is a quaint 19th Century idea that is irrelevant to the modern nation state.  What the modern nation state needs is a military that is highly skilled, manned by expert long service professionals, who are capable of precisely wielding the sophisticated high technology weapons of the 21st century to achieve decisive effects with minimum collateral damage.  A professional l military allows war to be executed quickly and with the minimum of casualties to all concerned.  A “people’s army” is good for violent, costly, and chaotic revolution, but the professional army of the stable nation state is the ultimate military force. 

A different point of view insists that the professional army is a costly and wasteful arm of government that permits a nation to constantly wage war without the commitment or approval of the vast majority of the population.  The standing professional army is inherently destabilizing to the international system.  This argument maintains that when the cost of war is low than war is common.  Thus, the relative ease and lack of debate with which the U.S. entered war with Iraq was a function of the standing professional military that made engaging in war “too easy” for the American population.

Does a professional army allow a country to go to war with the minimum of disruption to civilian life?  Is this a good thing or does it contribute to the willingness / ease with which a country might decide on a war option?

The trend of Western Armies is toward small, professional, volunteer forces.  Has the nature war changed in the 21st Century to make the people’s army irrelevant?  Or, have transnational groups taken the idea of the “people’s army” to the next level and found a way to match it asymmetrically against a professional force?


September 15, 2009 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I think the debate over a people’s army vs. a professional army should not be about the century we are living in and the technology available. I think it is geared more toward the economic and geographic status of your country. The U.S. model favors a professional army because we are a first world country that has the advantages of economic wealth and for the most part are isolated from enemy border countries that want to wage war against us. Whereas, certain countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, etc. around the world are 2nd and 3rd world countries who do not have the benefits of large or even medium size economies to wage wars. They are/may be bordered on one or all sides by countries that oppose their system, beliefs, policies, etc. or simply want what they have, be it land, resources, energy, etc. Therefore, in order for some of these countries to survive, the majority of the population must be willing to fight in order to preserve their livelihood. This is not to say that every country falls into one of these categories based on size or world economic status. Many for example consider Israel, to be a first world country that receives a significant amount of technology from the U.S. as well as produces its own. However, every Israeli citizen, at some point, has to serve two years in the military. In my opinion, this is based on the shear fact of numbers and geographic position. Israel is surrounded on all sides by countries who wish for its demise and taken collectively outnumbers it, probably 10 times over. So I would be willing to bet that the professional military that Israel has today would quickly be supplemented by a people’s army should the country feel that their entire existence was threatened from a coalition attack on all sides.

    Comment by Maj Scott "Spyder" Walker | September 19, 2009

  2. The use of small professional armies does allow a country to go to war with a minimum impact on civilian life. Furthermore it is right and proper that this be the case. One of the reasons professional soldiers serve is so that their country and the civilians within it can be protected and sheltered from war. They can continue to enjoy their lives whilst soldiers, sailors and airmen and women are deployed in pursuit of national interests.

    This should not however make it easier for governments to wage war. There are mechanisms in place to control for example the British government’s ability to deploy her armed forces. These mechanisms should ensure that the British armed forces are only deployed in support of the ‘just war’. Democracies must continue to maintain pressure on their government and hold them accountable for their actions. In so doing countries which control a small and professional military will not enter conflict on a whim.

    Comment by Major Sam Cates | September 21, 2009

  3. In response to the two questions. Yes, a professional army does allow us to go to war with minimal civilian disruption and does contibute to the ease of using war as an option. The minimal disruption is important to our economy. Yes you can view it as a negative point that the populace is not aware, but I think disrupting their lives and the economy is detrimental to our way of life. The important part of the second questions is the level of war utilized. A professional army does contribute to when war is used, but the use does not have to be maimum force. It could also be used for soft power or to convince other nations or factions that choices have consequences. It is these tools that are used by today’s nations to shape coalitions and partnerships. This “hard/forceful democracy” would not be possible without a professional army. If the professional army did not exist a large deterent would not exist, leaving countries vulnerable to attack from brutal/jealous neighbors.

    Comment by LCDR Marc Davis | September 22, 2009

  4. Unlike my counter parts I do believe our current Army (being a mixture of both professional and peoples) DO have a major impact on civilian life. What my counterparts are forgetting is that National Guard or Reserve Component make up over half of the Armed Services. Being a National Guard Officer myself and deploying multiple times in support of OIF and OEF I have seen the devestation that lengthly deployments can do on the society.

    For an example, on my first deployment, I was the Commander of a unit that stationed in the NE Corner of NE. Most of all my Soldiers were from the Wayne, West Point area. Combined both towns did not have a pop. of over 5000. When you take 180 Soldiers from those small rural communities it totally impacts their day to day activities. I mean, I had 3 of the 5 Deputy’s from Wayne County in my unit….how does a local Sherrif cope with over 80% of his force gone for 15 months? Second….alot of my Soldiers were family farmers….where their families ONLY income was from farming. When you take him away for 2 harvest seasons what inpact does that have on the family for one and how does the family pay for the half of million dollars in equipment they have loans on with no income coming in. Now don’t get me wrong…everyone of my troops knew the ultimate sacrifice they or their families might have to pay prior to enlisting and they choose too anyways…..but the significant impact of rural communities especially when it comes to the NG or USAR is huge.

    Comment by Darin Huss 17C | September 23, 2009

  5. Disrupting the lives of Americans may negatively impact our economy but there has to be a medium reached between the “people” and the professional military we are today. Everyone I know says “I support the troops” and most have the little magnetic yellow ribbon on their cars to boot. But both of these conflicts we are engaged in now are so far removed from the day to day lives of Americans that it is sad. Fact is an average American can’t name one soldier, airman, marine or sailor that has died in the war(s), (maybe Pat Tillman). But most can update you on Britney Spears most recent escapade or the latest State to approve gay marriage. You have to admit at least when we had a draft most American’s had a vested interest in the military even if the quality of those serving weren’t as high as it is now in our Profession of arms. The Clausewitz trinity is way out of balance today and that makes the “long war” hard to fight and even harder to win.

    Comment by MAJ Chistopher "Kit" Johnson 17-D | September 28, 2009

  6. A key limitation may be on the training time for a people’s army to fight high-intensity conflict. The lead time for missions is becoming less and less while the training bill continues to increase in terms of both time and resources. the OJT model that worked to some extent in WW1, WW2, Korea and Vietnam probably won’t fly now unless the ‘people’ are prepared to accept the human cost of that approach. I believe that we may be on the cusp of moving firmly towards niche forces (as opposed to armies that are complete functional packages) that will form coalitions on the fly to meet specific contingencies. Probably only the US, Russia and China will continue to maintain armies as we know them now – because only they will be able to afford it.

    Comment by sjponeill | November 19, 2009

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